Guildford has Saxon roots and historians attribute its location to the existence of a gap in the North Downs where the River Wey was forded by the Harrow Way The town's access was sufficient that by AD 978 it was home to an early English Royal Mint. On the building of the Wey Navigation and Basingstoke Canal Guildford was connected to a network of waterways that aided its prosperity. In the 20th century, the University of Surrey and Guildford Cathedral, an Anglican cathedral, were added.
Due to recent development running north from Guildford, and linking to the Woking area, Guildford now officially forms the southwestern tip of the Greater London Built-up Area, as defined by the Office for National Statistics.
The root of the first part may be the word "gold" rather than , a society or meeting of tradesmen: the only known 10th century (Saxon) record uses Guldeford and in the 11th century Geldeford ; both meaning gold and ford. Local historians on toponyms cite the lack of gold in the regions's sedimentary rocks and have suggested that use of gold may refer to golden flowers found by the ford itself, or the golden sand; several older sources such as Lewis's topological dictionary of 1848 prefer and give an unreferenced assertion there was a guild. There is an old coaching Inn on the Epsom Road previously called the 'Sanford Arms' may derive from 'Sand Ford', adding weight to the suggestion that the first part of Guildford and its many historic predecessors may refer to the very distinctive golden sand showing on the banks of the River Wey where it cuts through the sandy outcrop just south of the town.
In Sir Thomas Malory's early 1485 fictional series Le Morte d'Arthur, Guildford is identified with Astolat of Arthurian renown. however only rural Celtic Bronze Age pieces have been found in the town. Continuing the Arthurian connection, there is a local public house, the Astolat,
The Dark and Middle Ages
It is proven by archaeology and contemporary accounts that Guildford was established as a small town by Saxon settlers shortly after Roman authority had been removed from Britain. The settlement was likely expanded because of the Harrow Way (an ancient trackway including the ancient cities of Winchester and Canterbury crosses the River Wey at this point, via a ford).
Alfred the Great, the first Anglo-Saxon king of unified England named the town in his will and from 978 until a change of location part-way through the reign of William the Conqueror, Guildford was the location of the Royal Mint.
Guildford appears in Domesday Book of 1086 as Geldeford and Gildeford, a holding of William the Conqueror. The King officially held the 75 hagæ (houses enclosed in fences or closes) wherein lived 175 homagers (heads of household) and the town rendered £32. Stoke, a suburb within today's Guildford, appears in the Book as Stoch and was also held by William. Its domesday assets were: 1 church, 2 mills worth 5s, 16 ploughlands with two Lord's plough teams and 20 mens plough teams, of meadow, and woodland worth 40 hogs. Stoke was listed as being in the King's park, with a rendering of £15.
William the Conqueror used the Harrow Way when he sacked the countryside, including Guildford, after his victory at the Battle of Hastings. He then had the castle built in the classic Norman style, the keep of which still stands. A major purpose of Norman castle building was to overawe the conquered population and it had the considerable improvements sum of £26 spent on it in 1173 under the regency of the young Henry II. As the threat of invasion and insurrection declined the castle's status was demoted to that of a royal hunting lodge as Guildford was, at that time, at the edge of Windsor Great Park. It was visited on several occasions by King John, Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry III. In 1611 the castle was granted to Francis Carter whose grandson's initials EC and the year 1699 were above the entrance way. The surviving parts of the castle were restored in Victorian times and then in 2004; the rest of the grounds became a pleasant public garden.
In 1995, a chamber was discovered in the High Street, which is considered to be the remains of the 12th century Guildford Synagogue. While this remains a matter of contention, it is likely to be the oldest remaining synagogue in Western Europe.
In the 14th century the Guildhall was constructed and still stands today as a noticeable landmark of Guildford. The north end was extended in 1589 and the Council Chamber was added in 1683. It was in 1683 when a projecting clock was made for the front of the building and can be seen throughout the High Street.
Post Renaissance/Dissolution of the Monasteries
In 1598, a court case referred to a sport called kreckett being played at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford which was built in 1509 and became Royal gaining the patronage of Edward VI in 1552. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as the first recorded instance of cricket in the English language.
In 1619 George Abbot founded the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, now commonly known as Abbot's Hospital, one of the finest sets of almshouses in the country. It is sited at the top end of the High Street, opposite Holy Trinity church. The brick-built, three-storey entrance tower faces the church; a grand stone archway leads into the courtyard. On each corner of the tower there is an octagonal turret rising an extra floor, with lead ogee domes.
One of the greatest boosts to Guildford’s prosperity came in 1653 with the completion, after many wrangles, of the Wey Navigation. This made it possible for Guildford businesses to access the Thames at Weybridge by boat and predated the major canal building program in Britain by more than a century. In 1764 the navigation was extended as far as Godalming and in 1816 to the sea at Arundel via the Wey and Arun Junction Canal and the Arun Navigation. The Basingstoke Canal also was built to connect with the Wey navigation, putting Guildford in the centre of a network of waterways.
Post Industrial Revolution
The Chilworth Gunpowder works operated right through the Industrial Revolution, transported much of their wares through Guildford and its toll paid canal network.
A branch of the London and South-Western railway was opened in May 1845, to Guildford; its initial spur from Woking of six miles. In 1846, Acts were passed for making two railways from Guildford one leading to Godalming, and the other to Farnham and Alton; and in the same year, an Act was obtained for a railway from Reading, by Guildford, to Dorking and Reigate. All of these followed in the nineteenth century and remain. The Guildford Union Workhouse Casuals Ward provided accommodation for many of the casual workers on the railways.
In the years from 1820 to 1865 Guildford was the scene of severe outbursts of semi-organised lawlessness commonly known as the “Guy Riots”. The Guys would mass on the edge of the town from daybreak on Guy Fawkes Night, wearing masks or bizarre disguises and armed with clubs and lighted torches. With the onset of nightfall they would enter the town and avenge themselves on those who had crossed them in the preceding year by committing assaults and damaging property, often looting the belongings of victims from their houses and burning them on bonfires in the middle of the street. In later years attempts to suppress the Guys led to the deaths of two police officers. In 1866 and 1868 the Guys were dispersed by cavalry and this seems to have brought an end to the riots. Similar disorder surrounding the St Catherine’s Hill Fair, held just outside the town on the Pilgrims' Way, was suppressed around the same time. In 1906 the Guildford Union Workhouse Casuals Ward The Spike was built in Union Lane (Now Warren Road) on the grounds of the Workhouse, not far from the castle and this is today a tourist attraction.
After the 1882 death of their father, brothers Charles Arthur and Leonard Gates took over the running of his shop, which held the local distribution franchise for Gilbey's wines and spirits, and also sold beer. However, in 1885, the brothers were persuaded to join the temperance movement, and hence poured their entire stock into the gutters of the High Street. Left with no livelihood, they converted their now empty shop into a dairy. Using a milk separator, they bought milk from local farmers, and after extracting the cream and whey, sold the skim back to the farmers for pig feed. In 1888 three more of the Gates brothers and their sons joined the business, which led to the formal registration of the company under the name of the West Surrey Central Dairy Company, which after development of its dried milk baby formula in 1906 became Cow & Gate.
During World War II, the Borough Council built 18 communal air raid shelters. One of these shelters, known as the Foxenden Quarry deep shelter, was built into the side of a disused chalk quarry. Taking a year to build, it comprised two main tunnels with interconnecting tunnels for the sleeping bunks. It could accommodate 1000 people and provided sanitation and first aid facilities. Having been sealed since decommissioning in 1944, it has survived fairly intact. The quarry itself is now the site of the York Road car park, but the shelter is preserved and open once a year to the public.
On 5 October 1974, bombs planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army went off in two Guildford pubs, killing four off-duty soldiers and a civilian. The pubs were targeted because soldiers from the barracks at Pirbright were known to frequent them. The subsequently arrested suspects, who became known as the Guildford Four, were convicted and sentenced to long prison sentences in October 1975. They claimed to have been tortured by the police and denied involvement in the bombing. In 1989 after a long legal battle, their convictions were overturned and they were released.